Art Review: "Game (Life): Video Games in Contemporary Art," Firehouse Gallery, Burlington. Through February 13.
“Flower” by Jenova Chen
When you were playing Donkey Kong in 1981, you probably weren’t thinking about the artwork. It’s even less likely that you — or the game’s designers — considered the game’s message, or the feelings it might elicit in the player.
Nearly 30 years later, technology presents few boundaries to a programmer’s imagination. As making and distributing games independently has become easier, a new movement has grown up: the art game. What used to be purely a commercial industry has become not just creative but contemplative. Some of the results can be seen in an exhibit called “Game (Life): Video Games in Contemporary Art” at Burlington’s Firehouse Gallery.
Randy Smith is the head of Tiger Style, a gaming company he runs from his home in Huntington, Vt. He has assembled some of the best and brightest developers to create games that he believes inspire their players’ mental and emotional growth rather than fostering destructive tendencies. In “Game (Life),” viewers can see and play Tiger Style’s first game, Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, which was created last year exclusively for the iPhone. In December, Apple named it the iTunes Game of the Year.
Spider follows the journey of a jumping spider as it explores a decrepit manor house in search of food. All controls are finger-to-screen, as players lead the arachnid through the remnants of a broken marriage: a locket in a well, a pair of train tickets left unused, an empty bottle of booze. A puzzle element requires the gamer to ration the spider’s silk as it weaves webs to catch its prey. The gallery projects a loop of the game’s Edward Gorey-esque graphics above the tiny iPhone on which one plays.
Other games in the show are played on full-size monitors or wall projections and controlled with a mouse or console-style controller. In the work of Jenova Chen, this is almost beside the point. The Shanghai native creates graphically superb exercises in relaxation, more tone poems than games. Originally an MFA thesis, Flow positions the player as a wispy lower organism that grows and evolves as it consumes other simple, feathery-looking creatures. The programming tailors the play to the abilities of the user, enhancing its almost soporifically mellow vibe. Chen’s latest endeavor, Flower, mines similar territory as the player embodies a bundle of flower petals tossed by the wind through hyper-realistic cityscapes, fields and canyons.
Jason Rohrer became the poster boy for the art-game movement in 2008 when Esquire published a feature on his creative process, vegan lifestyle and happy marriage. Rohrer’s two featured games are both autobiographical. Though Passage visually resembles the 8-bit Nintendo classic The Legend of Zelda, the player’s quest is not to save a princess but to live with her. Lasting only five minutes, the game plays like a short film in which boy meets girl, the couple faces problems, and boy loses girl. The cost of the marriage is that the pair cannot bypass some obstacles; they must look for other ways to navigate them. Ultimately, the boy cannot perform without the girl.
The game’s spiritual sequel, Gravitation, expresses Rohrer’s conflict between his work and fatherhood. His protagonist gains abilities by batting a ball back and forth with his daughter. The trick is to balance traditional video-game priorities — exploring and winning points — with a commitment to returning to play ball.
Jonathan Blow spent $180,000 of his own money to complete Braid. A commentary on the environment with vivid backgrounds depicting acid rainfall, Braid features a business-suited protagonist who fights enemies such as pink-flower-bunny hybrids, which emerge from the ground mewling and hissing like angry kittens. This game is the most ambitious of the lot at the Firehouse — and among the most playable. The side-scrolling adventure-puzzle game plays smoothly, but the mind-bending time-manipulation element makes it unique.
Paolo Pedercini’s work is the exhibit’s most political. McDonald’s Videogame places the player in the role of fast-food management, controlling a factory farm, boardroom and franchise. Knocking down rainforests is necessary to plant more soy to feed cattle. Blowtorching a sick cow will keep others healthy. Candy-colored, comic-book-style graphics put a subversively happy face on the dastardly proceedings. Pedercini’s eminently playable Faith Fighter allows the gamer to choose from figures such as Ganesh and Buddha and duke it out for religious supremacy, ending in a final battle with Scientology’s Xenu.
Unfortunate technical difficulties lessened the impact of the show on the day this player took part. Sugar, by Heather Kelly, a onetime Champlain College visiting professor, was out of commission. The control on Jakub Dvorsky’s visually impressive postapocalyptic robot saga Machinarium was faulty. Nevertheless, “Game (Life)” will change the minds of seasoned players and noobs alike about the future of the video game.